I stepped onto my my front porch last Friday night and remembered to breathe. My eyes were tearing up (righteous indignation and MCHM will make you cry), and my head was pounding. The stench in the air is something I’ll never forget. Licorice is a close approximation – sweet with a pungent bitter kick on the back of the palate – and it was everywhere.
There was a heavy rain falling and puffs of fog and low clouds made the air feel dense, even claustrophobic. Was I breathing chemical-laced syrup delivered by the rain or just “normal” air?
[Whatever that means in the Kanawha Valley.]
Wide awake with a chemical with a name I couldn’t pronounce stuck in my nose and mouth, my head hammering in the grip of a vicious migraine I remembered…
Then two things became very clear:
- I was really angry. The illogical kind of brain-stem anger that helped our ancestors kill big animals with rocks and sticks.
- And I love this place, even though at times, it drives me completely and utterly insane.
West Virginia was born out of the Civil War, and it seems we are still fighting it.
We say we need the jobs that industry brings to our state, but we carry a BIG chip on our shoulder when it comes to outsiders, who bring the jobs we say we need. We don’t own much of our own land. For decades, others come take what’s in the ground beneath our feet away from us. They keep the money. We keep the misery and stereotypes.
This is the angst of appalachian people. We all handle it differently. Some leave for good. Others try to. Some believe that their suffering serves a noble purpose. For most of my life I have distanced myself from my own roots.
A Civil War of the heart.
I was born just over the state line, barely on the north side of the Mason-Dixon Line, in Cumberland, Maryland. My family, like many West Virginia expats followed economic opportunity. The pursuit took us to southeastern Ohio and to the metropolitan New York City area, specifically to Mahopac, NY and Stamford, CT.
My mom never let us forget our West Virginia roots, though I didn’t really understand what that meant at the time. Robert C. Byrd’s “Mountain Fiddler” album made it through every move, and my parents said they would get back to West Virginia if they ever could. We grew up eating biscuits and mom often added white gravy to hers. A jar of bacon grease sat in the refrigerator next to the butter, and we could always count on my grandfather to take us to a ramp feed during our visits to Summersville when they were in season.
[Grandpa frying up ham in a black skillet with bacon grease and ramps. “Hmmm…fat man knows what to eat.”]
We would drive to Charleston and Huntington to visit THE AUNTS (they deserve their own blog post) and my cousins. In the back seat, us kids always had a contest to see if we could hold our breath through Nitro. This was the 70s, people, and let me tell you the smell of sulfur or whatever the hell they were making in the chemical valley in those days was horrible.
When my family moved back to the state in 1983, I was a full-blown Yankee, which did not play well with the locals. The best thing I can say about the 3 years I spent in high school in Clarksburg was that I learned early that the world can be cruel and unfair.
I was desperate to leave, and I did. I vowed never to come back (note to the young: never say never, trust me on this). I wound up back in the state in the summer of 1996. This time, I moved to Charleston, near the country of my mother’s people. She told me “they” had really cleaned up the valley. It’s true that the smell had improved since my childhood.
But it was still there.
A few years later I read the essay my next door neighbor’s daughter was working on for college admission applications. “I’m trying to find a nice way to talk about how bad the pollution here is,” she told me. “But I can’t say it smells like burnt ass on a college application.”
Walking home from work last Thursday afternoon, I thought about that description as I hurried home to get out of the air, which smelled worse than usual. I checked Twitter, and saw the Gazette’s first story.
Then I waited.
My husband was out of town, so it was just me, the golden retriever and our two cats. The dog knew something was up and spent most of the evening starting at me anxiously. I waited with many of the comforts of someone who lives in a first-world nation; internet, electricity, cable. I was warm and I had enough to eat.
I waited for word on when my air and water might really be clean again.
I’m still waiting. Yes, they have cleared the water (mostly) and they say it’s safe.
I’m waiting to trust them.
I’m waiting to shower without worry. This morning, I took my first one since the spill and broke out immediately. I’m not the only one.
I’m waiting to plan a meal without having to think about whether or not the tap water I boil pasta in will hurt me or my family.
I’m waiting for our leaders to have the courage to do the right thing. Some have shown they do.
I’m waiting for the corporation that is responsible to stand up and admit they really screwed this up. I want them to say they are really, really sorry.
I could wait a long time for all of this to happen.
There’s one thing I’m not waiting on.
The end of the Civil War in my heart. That’s over, friends.
I belong in West Virginia. My heart is hers. And I will fight for her.